The List: Television’s Best Comedies

This Sunday, May 26th, marks the return of Arrested Development, the cult FOX comedy that initially ran from 2003 to 2006. This is not however, television in its typical format. Yes, these are episodes centered around everyone’s favorite spoiled Bluth family, but they are not airing on network or even cable television. The entirety of the new fifteen-episode run is being dropped all at once on the internet-streaming service Netflix. I for one can’t wait to jump right back into the pop culture-heavy world of Mitchell Hurwitz’s insanely clever sitcom, mostly because there’s never been anything quite like it on television. My love for it also got me to thinking about my all-time favorite television comedies and of course, the way my mind works, ranking them in some fashion.

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This list was extremely hard to compile. Picking and choosing between television shows that brought me so many different kinds of laughs and functioned in extremely different manners is like me trying to rank my all-time favorite breakfast meals (it’s impossible, but I’m sure all of them involve bacon is some form or the other). Nonetheless, I did my best to rank them according to how I feel at this moment in time. Tomorrow I may even feel differently, but regardless, these are all shows I love and that I couldn’t recommend more highly. And now, onto The List.

Note: This list is extremely modern because I grew up in what I consider to be the absolute golden age of television (although much of that is to do with the overwhelming quality of current television drama). There are certainly various classic comedies from previous eras that I hope to catch up on one day. Having said that, there are even current shows that I have missed out on. For some reason I have yet to watch either The Simpsons or 30 Rock. I have caught episodes here and there and enjoyed them, but I prefer to stick to shows that I have a complete sense of (i.e. have seen all the episodes). Also, I did not include sketch-comedy because it’s an entirely different animal, so no Chappelle’s Show.

Honorable Mentions: Community (NBC, 2009 to Present), Louie (FX, 2010 to Present), Party Down (Starz, 2009-10), The Larry Sanders Show (HBO, 1992-98), Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009 to Present), The Office (U.S.) (NBC, 2005-13), Flight of the Conchords (HBO, 2007-09)

5. South Park

(Comedy Central, 1997 to Present)

Butters

“I’m just a little bi-curious”

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated comedy juggernaut about the tales of the grade-schoolers of South Park Elementary has now been on the air for over fifteen years and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. The cast of characters is wide and varied but for me, I always come back to my personal favorite character, Butters. He’s not mature and doesn’t seem to have any real knowledge of anything above his grade level. He’s the kid in school who embarrasses himself constantly by being naive and that’s something that I can certainly relate to. While Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman are busy with their latest pop-culture or current event induced scheme, Butters is there in the background just trying to be a kid. Sure, he gets wrapped up in their plans every now and then, but he never is quite aware of it on the level that the other characters are. That, in a way, is the genius of South Park. Trey Parker and Matt Stone created a world so rich with absurdity that every now and then a form of truth seeps into their characters and storylines that is impossible to ignore. Butters is just one of those many hilarious truths.

4. Curb Your Enthusiasm 

(HBO, 2000 to 2011?)

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“Pret-ty pret-ty pre-tty good.”

Some people may be wondering where Seinfeld is on this list. For me, Curb Your Enthusiasm takes the basic principles of Seinfeld‘s comedy and pushes them to the extreme. It should come as no shock to you then that Larry David who co-created Seinfeld not only created Curb Your Enthusiasm, but also serves as the star of the show. The reason I prefer Curb is that I strongly believe Larry is a much more effective vessel for this brand of comedy than Jerry Seinfeld ever was. While Larry was simply writing scenarios for other actors in his previous show, here he is able to let it all fly loose by performing the ideas he comes up with himself. He puts this somewhat-fictional version of himself in situations that he knows he couldn’t handle in real life, and that in turn leads to hilarity. Larry is annoyed by anything and everyone and seeing him live out this miserable existence for our enjoyment is extremely entertaining. He also sends up various celebrity figures who he comes across such as Michael J. Fox, who annoys him about as much as random pedestrians who can’t seem to park their cars between the lines. While Curb has not aired since 2011, the possibility of a new season is still being dangled out there by various HBO executives. I for one sure hope we haven’t seen the last of Mr. David’s uniquely awkward brand of comedy.

3. Extras

(HBO & BBC, 2005 to 2007)

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“You know what a friend of mine once said? They said I’ll never be happy ’cause I’ll never be famous enough. And they were right.”

While many have long pointed to Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant’s original incarnation of The Office as their crowning achievement, I have always greatly preferred Extras. The show centers on actor Andy Millman (Gervais) and his quest to become something more than just a movie extra. Using the format of having Andy encounter a world-reknown celebrity in each episode, the show creates a stark contrast between Millman’s lowly existence and that of these actually famous figures. Gervais brings equal amounts of snark and heart to the character that navigates the audience up his ladder to success, but it is Andy’s friendship with Maggie (Ashley Jensen), another struggling extra, that really gives the audience its emotional connection. We are also treated to a Stephen Merchant on-screen role (never a bad thing) as Andy’s hapless agent Darren Lamb who constantly provided with me a healthy supply of laughs. While Extras only aired for two seasons and a Christmas Special, it’s impact on me continues even now. Never before have I seen a show take on the existence of someone seeking fame so well that you find yourself questioning whether you should be laughing or crying at Andy’s quest. Gervais’ performance in the Christmas Special is one for the ages, culminating in a monologue befit of a true leading man. For Andy though, he says it while on a reality show trying to exploit the ounce of fame he had gained from his television work. There is nothing quite more hilarious, or heartbreaking.

2. Freaks and Geeks

(NBC, 1999-2000)

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-“So I wake up this morning, and guess what is sitting on the end of my bed?”

-“A turd?”

The rare hour-long television comedy entry on this list, Freaks and Geeks lasted for only one season, but it just so happens to be one of the best seasons of television ever. The show focused on two subsets of teenagers attending high school in 1980s Michigan. The main character Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) begins to rebel against her family and falls in with the freak crowd (full of soon to be stars James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel) while her younger brother Sam continues to pal around with his geek friends Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr). The true success of the show was that it always felt real and seemed to perfectly capture the essence of the depressing realities of high school, while also allowing you to laugh at these experiences that may not be that far off from your own. The entirety of the cast is fantastic but if one had to be singled out it would certainly be Martin Starr’s character Bill Haverchuck. Bill is a tall, lanky, glasses-wearing geek who is always more interested in watching Dallas than chasing girls like Sam and Neal. The writing staff seemed to recognize Starr’s talent for delivering the most ridiculous lines with a straight face, and his are certainly the most quotable. The show was created by Paul Feig, who has now had great success directing films such as Bridesmaids, and also came with the Judd Apatow stamp of approval as he served as the main executive producer on the show. It’s no wonder then that so much of this cast has shown up in many Apatow film productions in recent years. For me though, their best work will always be Freaks and Geeks.

1. Arrested Development

(FOX, 2003 to PRESENT!)

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“I know you’re the big marriage expert – oh, I’m sorry, I forgot, your wife is dead!”

And now we come to the whole reason for this list in the first place. It may be a little anti-climactic to place it here but as far as I’m concerned there has never been a television comedy better than Arrested Development. It takes the typical family dynamic of a sitcom and within that family places the strangest array of characters who each somehow, someway, serve a purpose. Our protagonist Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) is forced into the patriarch role of the wealthy family when his father (Jeffrey Tambor) is imprisoned for illegal dealings. Michael then has to somehow band all his family together now that they are on the verge of financial ruin. The most interesting aspect of the show is its demanding quick-wit. It is insanely well-written, not just in terms of its hilarious word play and zany characters, but its increasingly ambitious plots that episodes later may reveal surprises that make you reconsider what you had seen before. It’s a show stock full of below the surface pop culture references that you may not be aware of on a first viewing, which is why the show gained such a following after its cancellation: it demands repeated viewings. From the adventures of Michael’s magician older brother Gob (Will Arnett) to his mother-obsessed claw-handed little brother Buster (Tony Hale), it’s a show that is as hilariously entertaining as it is intelligent. The fact that it is returning after a seven year absence this very week is still mind-boggling to me, but I guess that’s just a testament to a show that has truly stood the test of time. Good Grief, I can’t wait.

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